Clifford Orwin on the actuality of ethics courses and oaths.

… I’m not suggesting that business students are bad people, or that those who would teach them to be good are any less competent than the rest of us. It’s just that the whole notion of teaching ethical behaviour rests on a fundamental misconception – namely, that ethical behaviour can be taught.

Now I’m a pretty good teacher, or so people say. Yet, give me Mr. Madoff for one, two or three courses of ethics instruction and he would still be Bernie Madoff. Would he have learned anything from the experience? Yes, he’d talk a much better game of ethics. Thanks to my teaching, he’d be an even greater menace to society.

This year, I’m teaching 500 students about justice, and I’m not making a single one of them a better person. Those who already aspire to justice may refine their understanding of what it is. (They may also come to see that everything has its problems, even justice.) Those already minded to be good citizens may become more thoughtful ones. I believe strongly in what I do – I just don’t think that what I do is to improve the moral character of my students.

Students indifferent to justice just aren’t going to be won over to it by anything that I could say. Or that anyone else could say. A university course is not a revival meeting. I don’t cure palsies and I don’t plead with students to come forward to declare themselves for ethics. And if I did – and if they did – it wouldn’t mean a thing. Talk is cheap. Talk consisting of high-minded oaths and declarations of one’s moral seriousness is even cheaper.

By the time a student arrives at university, and a fortiori several years later when he ambles on to his MBA, his ethical character is already firmly set. Whether virtue can ever be taught was already a thorny question for Plato. Whether it can be taught to adults, in a classroom, shouldn’t be a thorny question for anyone.

… What can ethics education accomplish, then, beyond informing of professional standards? It can serve as an exercise in self-celebration. Look at us students, how earnest we are in avowing how earnest we are. Look at our institution, how bent we are on making our students better people.

The relation of such palaver to actual conduct is doubtful, to say the least. Take Stanford University, where the student body avows itself as green as Kermit the Frog. Buttressed by a stack of PowerPoint graphs, a friend likes to demonstrate to his students that, as they have grown ever more Gaia-friendly over the years, their consumption of energy in the Stanford dorms has grown ever more mind-boggling. It’s those shiny gadgets of theirs. My friend does this for the sheer delicious malice of it, not because he expects a single student to unplug anything. He knows that, among any student body, ethics is primarily a fashionable pose.

Are there genuinely ethical businessmen, doctors, lawyers, police officers, plumbers? Sure. But not because of anything that I or any other professor taught them. Modesty, colleagues, modesty.


Stanley Fish says something similar, less amiably.

Margaret Soltan says something similar.

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7 Responses to “The truth, so help me God.”

  1. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    I don’t think any of the above is an argument showing that ethics cannot be taught. Of course, this is an age-old question. If you, like me, adore Aristotle, this is THE age-old question.

    What the above argument suggests is that the currently dominant form of ethics pedagogy may not do much to inspire virtuous practice. I tend to be quite sympathetic to such an argument. But it would take an extremely different argument to proceed from this premise to the conclusion that ethics itself cannot be taught. Aristotle would not agree, and I share his dubiety in this matter.

    Ethics can be taught. Just not the way we tend to go about doing it.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Ethics, I’d say, can be taught by parents when you’re young — not directly through verbal persuasion and explanation so much as by a daily sort of modeling. But I tend to agree with Orwin that by the time you’re old enough to be in business school your essential moral orientation is set.

    It’s not set in stone — embellishments and intensifications are possible, but it’s basically set. I mean, it either took or it didn’t; you grew up in some sort of moral universe or you didn’t.

    Of course ethics itself, as a subject, can be taught to anyone with a sharp enough mind. The question is whether professors can teach students to BE ethical. Like Orwin and Fish, I don’t just think professors can teach students to be ethical. I think professors should not try to teach students to be ethical. I think professors should teach their subjects.

  3. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Thanks for the intriguing response.

    I do think that our habits are critical in shaping virtuous character, and also that many years of habits can result in practices and character that are exceedingly difficult to break. But even that premise does not establish that ethics cannot or should not be taught to older students.

    But note that we are really discussing two different matters: the first is whether ethics can be an object of instruction. The second is whether ethics can be cultivated as a lived experience. Few would disagree that the former is possible. But ethics taught this way tends to be arid, stilted, and dry, totally disconnected from people’s lived lives. This is a waste, as far as I’m concerned, because it tends to treat ethics as a vocation, as a set of brute facts and data to be learned and applied like equations. And with respect, asserting that "professors should teach their subjects" is question-begging when the crucial question is what exactly teaching ethics does and should consist of.

    But I do not agree that it is either impossible or inadvisable to help students reflect on what it means to live an ethical life, to cultivate virtu. Why should a professor not do so? I mean, what else should a professor do? Note that to suggest as such is not to argue the professor should simply impart ethical wisdom like so many brute facts; this is a total bastardization of what phronesis demands. The teacher in an Aristotelian sense is a guide, not an oracle.

    The studia humanitatis itself was intended, soup to nuts, to help learners cultivate virtu in their daily lives. If professors should not follow this lead, then I have to question in what sense are modern day humanities professors successors to the tradition bequeathed to them.

    In any case, I’ve said my piece on this, so I will stop hogging the comment thread. Thanks again for the discussion.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    It’s possible we don’t disagree, and that I’m being too coy. To teach the humanities, as I do, is always (at least as I teach it, with the texts I teach) to put into play, implicitly and explicitly, the question of how to live. It is,with most texts (not with all — there’s Celine, etc.), to grapple with moral complexity and work toward an understanding of this or that imaginative enactment of moral complexity. But it’s precisely the glory of the art I teach that it is NOT coercive or direct or didactic in regard to how to live. It enacts the difficulty of being human in an oblique, fictive, beautiful way. I’m very phobic about compromising in any way, in the classroom, with the free play of aesthetic experience, the way fiction is fiction, and as such enables both an escape from literal moral seriousness AND a somehow freer consideration of moral life than ordinary life (as opposed to aesthetic experience) affords.

  5. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    At risk of further hogging: I think we agree much more than we disagree.

    I gleefully endorse the glory of literature as a means of facilitating the moral imagination, as a way of teaching reflection on the ethical life in a non-coercive, non-direct, non-didactic manner. I share your sense, if I attribute it correctly, that the great question — how shall I live? — is critical to education writ large, and my point was that if teachers abdicate their responsibility to help cultivate virtu, the teaching role itself is impoverished (and is inconsistent with the studia humanitatis).

    All of this brings me back to the original point I was proffering: the problem is not, per se, working with (young?) adult learners on the cultivation of virtu, on the complexity of a lived ethical life; the problem is much more with the way we formalize and teach ethics.

    And now, I promise, I really will shut up.

  6. Brad Says:

    I once read an article by an economist who was imagining a world where the punishment did not fit the crime. In his world, the punishment was always the same: death. The chance of receiving the punishment depended on the crime. So, theft of a loaf of bread might have a 1:1000 chance, murder 1:3, etc. A giant roulette wheel determined whether you died or not. Crazy, I know. Who would kill a person for stealing a loaf of bread?

    The problem of business ethics is that everyone assumes that acting unethically results in monetary gains, with little or no risk. People actually believe and say this (but where’s the data?). Corporate malfeasance is all upside and little or no downside.

    Change things. Increase the perceived risk: you can kill a corporation. If the corporation sees that their C-level executives can act in ways that might kill the corporation, then the company will make efforts to ensure that their executives act ethically, or least act in ways that would not appear to violate the laws.

  7. University Diaries » “Mr. Quinn was an A-student at his Catholic school and an altar boy. He was known around the neighborhood as the local ‘genius,’ says [a childhood friend]. As an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Says:

    […] Clifford Orwin, a professor of political philosophy, makes the point: [G]ive me Mr. Madoff for one, two or three courses of ethics instruction and he would still be Bernie Madoff. Would he have learned anything from the experience? Yes, he’d talk a much better game of ethics. Thanks to my teaching, he’d be an even greater menace to society. […]

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